Touchstone Pictures // 1996 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Rogers (Retired) // April 11th, 2000
"Would you love me for the rest of my life?"
"No, I'm going to love you for the rest of mine."
Phenomenon quietly came out in the summer of 1996, early in the rebirth of John Travolta's (Pulp Fiction, Grease, Battlefield Earth) career in the mid '90s. It wasn't a film about saving the world in dramatic fashion, nor were any battles fought. It didn't have very many special effects, and really wasn't an all-star collection of acting talent. In fact, it was just another quiet little film sandwiched in amid the typical summer hopeful-blockbuster fare of screwball comedies and explosive action yarns.
What Phenomenon did, however, was reach out to the audience with a simple tale of heart and desire. Joined by veteran actors Robert Duvall (Falling Down, Apocalypse Now, The Apostle) and Forest Whitaker (Good Morning Vietnam, Color of Money, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai), and then relative unknown Kyra Sedgwick (Heart and Souls, Singles, Talk to Me), Travolta reached down and produced a performance of subtle soul and quiet faith that was quite remarkable.
Described in the simplest terms possible, Phenomenon is a film about the cruelties of people, and the power of possibility. Set in a small rural Californian town, the film begins with George Malley's (Travolta) birthday party. Late in the night, George wanders outside for a breath of air and seems to be struck by a strange light from the sky. As the days pass, he finds his mind is starting to work in ways it never did before, starts to become more and more stimulated with thought and knowledge. As he innocently begins to pursue research and learning merely to keep himself occupied, the townsfolk he's grown up with, all his life, react with fear and hostility to the newly brilliant George.
In the midst of this, Sedgwick's character is a recently divorced mother of two, who's moved to the town seeking a quiet place to finish raising her children and rebuild her life. She is eventually won over by George's quiet spirit, his earnest love, and his forthright manner. Even as the town rejects George, she finds he's won her heart, though she was determined to keep things simple, and not find a new someone.
Phenomenon illustrates a recurring theme throughout human history: those who are different are shunned. Most people deny this impulse, but observation of behavior shows otherwise. As George displays greater and greater intellectual ability, only his closest friends (Whitaker as his best friend, Duvall as the town doctor, and Sedgwick as his love) remain true to him throughout the growing outcry of hostile rejection.
The film didn't garner a rash of publicity, but did notch itself into official blockbuster status by passing the hundred million dollar mark before leaving theaters. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (part seven of From the Earth to the Moon, Instinct, While You Were Sleeping), the film is enthralling throughout as George struggles to cope with his rapidly changing world. Under Turteltaub's direction, the story takes shape and direction, stays away from the lines that cross into hokey or overly dramatic. Great use of music is made; repeatedly throughout the film pieces are used that bring a scene home, make a point clearly, and provide additional emotional impact. The final scene, with the hit "Change the World" by Eric Clapton is enough to bring tears when you see how things have finally played out. How the little things can mean so much.
The performances by the principle actors are very strong, especially Duvall and Travolta. Duvall's Doc is a kind country doctor who's delivered and treated most everyone in the town, who serves to remind them they've cast out someone who's no different from any of them. Travolta, as George, is earnest and sincere even as he conveys growth and opportunity. These roles serve to anchor the story, and improperly played, could easily render the entire effort melodramatic. Instead, they bring the audience along with George as he expands his horizons and shifts his sights.
In supporting roles, both Whitaker and Sedgwick do not disappoint. Whitaker is a strong character actor who doesn't get nearly enough recognition or work. As George's friend, he's loyal and lovable, providing contrast against the reactionary townsfolk's increasingly hostile attitudes. Sedgwick, as the "love interest," doesn't play her role as a device or a token, but instead steps up with a performance of soul and range that provide the extra punch to push Phenomenon over the top from "gimmick film" to "wonderful story." It's really a shame she hasn't seen more work from Hollywood following Phenomenon, because she deserves it. Also notable is a cameo appearance by Brent Spiner (Independence Day, Out to Sea, Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a psychologist who interviews George during the middle of the film in a very humorous scene.
The disc is a very early release from Disney (who owns Touchstone), released in 1996. The video transfer is nicely done, though it is non-anamorphic. Colors are strong and don't waver, edges are crisp and natural. The print is quite clean, with only the smallest, most infrequent amounts of grit or grain. As a fairly recent film, there's really no excuse for this film to not look good on DVD, and it does enjoy a very well done transfer.
The audio stacks up very well also, a full-fledged Dolby Digital 5.1 transfer that makes full use of the soundstage. Dialogue is centered and clear, sound and music enfold around the viewer from the fronts and surrounds, and a few uses are even made of the low frequency channel. Everything about the audio is bold, strong, and very enjoyable. The soundstage is very well mixed, and makes excellent use of the entire system a home theater offers.
While the menu is about as basic as they get, simply a rendered still of the movie poster, it loads very quickly, and thus serves the purpose. Included as the sole extra is the film's trailer, which, honestly, is a bit overdone, and really doesn't illustrate the magic Phenomenon offers. Still, it's presented in widescreen format, and is properly transferred.
Unfortunately, the disc was an early release in the growth of the DVD format, and was an early Disney disc at that. This means it's a barebones disc. Notably lacking are an anamorphic transfer, which surely would have enhanced the value and quality offered. Also missing are any additional materials that could serve to provide the audience with more insight into the story and production. A commentary, interview segments, story discussions, anything would be greatly appreciated; either as buildups to watching the film, or for contrast and thought stimulation following. A missed opportunity, certainly.
A minor note is an error in the menus: the French subtitles are not listed in the menus, even though they're coded on the disc and can be found with your subtitle button.
Phenomenon is another example of an absolutely magical film shackled with an inadequate disc. Hopefully, a special edition disc will be forthcoming, and offer a more complete package for fans to enjoy. In the meantime, this is a solid catalog offering that could shine, but instead merely twinkles faintly. The film makes the disc worth the buy, but it could have been so much better.
The court issues the far too familiar admonishments about inadequate disc offerings, and prays recent events indicate a shift in the direction of disc releases from Disney and other studios. Phenomenon itself, however, is free to go.
Review content copyright © 2000 David Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailer